- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Manor House was built in 1653 by settlers from Denmark, and part of it is still in use. The sugar mill, dating from 1733, serves as a meeting room. Former slave quarters dating back 250 years provide lodging.

It’s not often a visit to a destination hotel includes a history tour spanning several centuries. However, history is present at the Buccaneer Resort on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The resort was opened by a cattle rancher, Douglas Armstrong, in 1948. It is one of the longest-operating resort properties in the Caribbean and also the only one run by the same family — so there is lots of family history.

Set on 340 acres, with dramatic views of the sea or the mountains around every turn, the resort could be full, and you would not feel crowded. Separate groupings of rooms and buildings are scattered throughout the property, yet the entire complex seems easily accessible. Although all activities are within walking distance, climbing some of the hills might be difficult for a non-walker. Fortunately, shuttles are provided to take guests from one activity to the next.

The activities are endless: yoga classes to basketball; kayaking and snorkeling to children’s camp and fitness center — these are the free ones. For a fee, there are spa treatments, golf, tennis and island excursions. Those into jet skis will have to go elsewhere; most guests are delighted there’s nothing motorized to break the serenity.

“The Buccaneer has the most premiere setting on the island, and everything is so conveniently located,” says guest J.R. Rowland, from Boston. “I come here year after year, and the staff caters to the guests, whether it’s one or a dozen. The Armstrongs insist upon it.”

The current Armstrongs, Elizabeth and Robert, are Douglas’ grandchildren and eighth-generation Cruzans. Elizabeth Armstrong is expecting her first child this summer, and Robert already has two, so it seems the Armstrong family history will persevere at the Buccaneer for at least another generation. That is comforting to know, for it is the Armstrongs’ emphasis on service that distinguishes the resort. I didn’t encounter a single employee — bellboy, housekeeper, shuttle driver, waiter — who didn’t greet me with a warm smile and a sincere desire to help.

That doesn’t happen by accident. Hiring is stringent, and every member of the staff undergoes a training process that took two years to develop and is reinforced daily. “The staff here is incomparable,” noted five-time guest Greg Kacz from New York City. “When my 2-year-old son was sick, they noticed and went out of their way to bring a toy or juice or just come by to cheer him up.”

The only breakdown in service comes at a time when most people are particularly fussy: when they’re eating. Though the food is well prepared and presented, there are delays between courses. Just relax, and don’t stop for a meal if you’re on the way to catch a plane.

Elizabeth Armstrong started working at the hotel at age 8, picking up litter. Fascinated by all the lights and sounds on the switchboard, she graduated a year later to switchboard operator and continued to learn every aspect of the hotel business, as did her behind-the-scenes brother.

Some of the staff members she knew as a child are still working at the resort. “Fifty percent of the staff has been here over 30 years — they feel like it’s their Buccaneer,” she says.

Westin Huggins, who has been working here since the early ‘60s, is a fixture as bartender at Mermaid Beach, one of resort’s three beaches. When I asked him why he had stayed at this one hotel for so long, he replied: “If I’m going to work in tourism, I might as well be at the best.”

Lying in the sun at Mermaid Beach at 5 in the evening, with a Huggins cocktail in hand, looking up at palm fronds gently swaying overhead, brought a very satisfied smile to my face. It was 20 degrees back home.

I closed my eyes and listened to the soulful cry of a lonesome dove strutting along the sand. Later, I watched the sunset from the balcony of my room, the lush grounds overlooking the Caribbean, with the lights of Christiansted twinkling as a backdrop. At that point, I couldn’t have been less interested in the history.

The Buccaneer is not the most opulent resort, and I mean that in a good way. It’s homey, welcoming and comfortable. Even the most luxurious suites are not lavish. They are spacious: I could get enough exercise walking from the bedroom to the closet to make up for missing a treadmill routine. The bathroom is as large as some standard hotel rooms.

For exercise, I preferred an evening jog along the nature trail, lowering my stress level while running between, around and among ponds of water lilies (one with a resident egret often in attendance), mangroves, flowered pathways, old mahogany trees, all often within sight of the sea. It is not easy to go back to the treadmill. One word of caution: The trail intersects the golf course, so look out for golfers and golf balls.

One of the highlights of a Buccaneer stay is the weekly History and Nature Tour conducted by Elizabeth Armstrong. In addition to delving more deeply into the resort’s 300-year past, she tells stories about the trees, shrubs and flowers, most of which bloom year-round, that grace the expansive grounds. The trees almost sound like a list of ingredients: cashew, jasmine, calabash, almond, mahogany and a tamarind more than 300 years old. Even the trees are part of the history.

Something I found of particular interest was that all of the water is recycled: Bath and waste water is used for irrigation, rainwater for drinking and desalinated seawater for general washing. I like that in a resort.

• • •

For more information, call 800/255-3881 or visit www.thebuccaneer.com.

Accommodations: Standard to luxury rooms, family cottages to expansive suites. Prices, based on type of lodging, with ocean or mountain views and time of year, range from $215 to $700 per night, including full breakfast buffet.

Dining: Casual poolside fare is available at the Grotto. The covered but otherwise open Terrace Restaurant combines beautiful views with international and Caribbean specialties. (Average entree price is $25.) The Mermaid, at a beach-side location, offers full lunch and dinner menus (entrees from $16 to $26).

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